How to Beat the Winter Blues
Let’s be real here, sometimes winter sucks (I’m mostly talking about us stuck up here in northern climates). Of course there are some positives but i’m sure 90% of you would opt for a year-round summer if you had the choice. If you are someone who tends to have a low mood during the winter or spend your long dark hours counting down the days until spring, this post is for you! There are many strategies we can use to embrace winter and use this season as an opportunity for rest, recovery, resilience and introspection.
Winter is the most YIN season. Rest, recovery, sleep, quiet, introspection and chilling are all yin qualities. If we took a little trip back in time to our native ancestors of this land during the winter, I’m sure the last thing they were doing was daily crossfit, pulling all-nighters and partying like it’s 1999. They were chilling THE MOST. Of course there were periods of activity to hunt and gather but the majority of their time was spent relaxing and conserving energy. Many hours were spent sitting around the fire staying warm and sleeping due to the short daily light cycle. This left plenty of time for meditation, introspection and self-reflection. In today’s world we are fortunate to have the convenience of technology but this also leaves us with far too much stimulation and no time for quiet. As hard as it may seem, put a halt on your yang activities during the winter and make some time to rest, relax and chill, whatever that means for you!
Pick up a book! Instead of selling your soul to Instagram and Netflix, find a book that you genuinely enjoy, get cozy and read away.
Start a meditation practice if you haven’t already. Fortunately there are an abundance of meditation apps and guided meditations available, no need to hike 3 days up a mountain to a remote Buddhist temple to learn from Tibetan Monks (but please let us know if you do, we would love to hear about it). Sam Harris “Waking Up” app is excellent as well as the “Insight Timer” app.
Spend more time sleeping. More darkness= more melatonin = more sleep!
Embrace the Darkness
With modern lighting we have become detached from our natural light cycles and constantly live under artificial lighting regardless of our external environment. Our light cycles play a critical role in our circadian rhythm. A good circadian rhythm= good sleep and good health. In the winter we have a much shorter photoperiod during the day which translates into more darkness thus more melatonin. Melatonin is arguably the MOST important hormone in our body as it provides us with proper recovery and regeneration of our cells. It also happens to be the most potent endogenous (self-made) antioxidant. The issue is, we no longer embrace darkness in our society. We always have lights on plus we bombard ourselves with blue light from TVs, phones, computers and other screens at all hours of the day. Lucky for us, blue light is the #1 way to suppress melatonin! (sarcasm)
After the sun sets, avoid artificial light like your life depends on it! (because it does, check out this study!)
Avoid the use of bright blue LED lights after dark, opt for candles ideally. Incandescent bulbs, red LEDs or salt-lamps are also good options.
Use blue light filtering software on your computers and phones.
Use this link for 10% off IRIS blue light software.
In my opinion, seasonal affective disorder is mostly just a fancy term for lack of sunlight during the winter aka “nature deficiency disorder”. There are many studies to support the link between low levels of vitamin D and depression as well as seasonal mood disorders. Vitamin D synthesis from UVB sunlight is extremely important but I would argue that sunlight provides many other benefits of equal and even greater importance. Natural light from the sun has the most profound impact on our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm (sometimes referred to as our sleep-wake cycles) is the MASTER CONTROLLER of our physiology. All of our cells function based on daily, monthly, and seasonal rhythms that depend on the inputs we provide to them- sunlight being the most important. Each spectrum of sunlight provides unique benefits including red and infrared light for mitochondrial function, UV light for neurotransmitter production, blue light for cortisol release and much more! In the winter we tend to hibernate and miss out on all the crucial benefits of sunlight while simultaneously bombarding ourselves with artificial blue light. DOUBLE WHAMMY!
Get outside during sunrise and expose your eyes and as much of your skin DIRECTLY to the sun (no glasses, sunglasses, looking through windows etc). This is the most critical time to set your circadian rhythm for the day.
Take frequent “sun breaks” during the day. Try to get outside during the sunrise, midday, and sunset to take advantage of the different light spectra present at each time.
Build up your vitamin D stores in the summer to last you throughout the winter. UVB light is NOT present during the winter in northern latitudes because of the angle of the sun, therefore you can’t produce any vitamin D. Luckily vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be stored in your body for longer periods of time, stock up while you can!
Wait, I thought you said NOT to do crossfit in the winter?! I should clarify and say that exercise is definitely recommended at all times of the year but you should pay attention to the type and intensity of exercise during the winter. As the primary yin season, focus on lower intensity exercise and restorative activities. I’m not saying you can’t go crush it at the gym every once in a while but high intensity activity is better suited during the yang seasons (spring and summer) when energy is abundant (from both sun and food). Exercise is one of the best researched interventions to improve cognitive health and is a potent way to increase production of endorphins and endocannabinoids– your mood-boosting “feel good” chemicals.
Find a lower-intensity activity that you enjoy doing. Some great options are walking, light jogging/cardio, yoga, tai chi/qigong, and swimming. The more outdoor exercise you can do, the better!
Incorporate shorter bouts of strength training. Lifting weights a few times per week can help to maintain muscle mass without expending much energy.
Work on your mobility! The winter is a great season to spend more time stretching and doing some sort of myofascial release (self-massage) with a foam roller, lacrosse ball etc. This is a great way to rest and rejuvenate, especially in combination with focused breathing.
There is no true replacement for the sun BUT there are some great technologies that provide us with some of nature’s benefits. The benefits of different light therapies will vary based on the spectrum they emit but in general they are useful in boosting mitochondrial function thus improving energy production and mood. I will repeat THERE IS NO REPLACEMENT FOR THE SUN, light therapies should be used as supplements to natural sun exposure.
Fire is the OG light technology that was harnessed and used by our ancestors not only to cook food, but also to extend daylight and provide energy in the form of infrared energy. If you think about it, fire is really just stored photosynthetic energy from sunlight that gets released from the plant (wood) during combustion. NEATO! Therefore fire is the most natural form of light therapy we can utilize. Take advantage of your indoor fireplace if you have one or invest in an outdoor firepit, you won’t regret it.
Infrared Incandescent Heat Lamps
These are probably the closest artificial approximation of sunlight emitting primarily red and infrared light. They are pleasantly warming and especially useful for local aches, pains and injuries.
We use bulbs from Sauna Space.
Red/ Near Infrared LED Devices
Red light therapy or photobiomodulation is a very well-researched modality for a number of conditions. These devices act mainly by increasing mitochondrial function and mimicking the predominant spectra in sunlight- red and infrared light. Treatments usually range from 5-20 minutes per day depending on the device used.
We use this device from Red Therapy Co (Use code NaturoAcademy for $25 off)
Bright Light Devices
Also known as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamps, these devices can be beneficial for seasonal mood disorders especially if you live somewhere with very short days. I can’t recommend a specific type of light but beware of shady marketing tactics claiming that they are “full spectrum” devices. Most of them are predominantly blue light (which we get plenty of on a day to day basis) and provide about 10,000 lux of light. Going outside on a cloudy day will provide you with 20,000-30,000 lux of brightness! If using these devices it’s best to combine them with a red/near infrared device to balance out the blue.
UVB Vitamin D Lamps
Similar to bright light devices these can be effective during the winter seasons but should be used with caution as isolated UV light can be harmful (always pair with red/near infrared!). If you have low vitamin D levels this may be a more effective option than oral supplementation but make sure you discuss what’s most appropriate for you with a practitioner who understands phototherapy.
Last but not least, saunas are a great way to add some yang and warmth to those cold and dreary winter days. Traditional wood burning “Finnish style,” electrically heated, or infrared saunas are all great options just make sure they have been tested for EMF’s and don’t contain toxic materials! If you are on a budget check out our DIY SAUNA ARTICLE FOR UNDER $150 using infrared incandescent heat lamps.
“We have become alienated from nature, but the cold is capable of bringing us back to what we once had lost.” – Wim Hof
If you have heard of Wim Hof aka the ICE MAN, you are probably already familiar with some of the benefits of cold exposure. We will take a deep dive into cold therapy in another post but in the context of winter, think of cold as a necessary environmental input (similar to proper light exposure) in order for your body to function optimally during the winter. The cold signals your mitochondria to activate uncoupling proteins which upregulate heat production, fat burning and boost your overall mitochondrial function. Acute cold stress also dramatically increases neurotransmitters associated with increased mood, focus and motivation such as norepinephrine and dopamine.
Go outside, especially when it’s cold!
You don’t need to freeze your buns off, just slowly increase your cold tolerance by exposing yourself to uncomfortable temperatures. No need to bundle up every time you step foot outside, you won’t die if you take your garbage out in a t-shirt. Consider the fact that humans survived in northern climates and ICE AGES for thousands of years spending the majority of their days outside with minimal clothing. We are built for this!
Give cold showers a shot
I would recommend not starting on cold unless you are a seasoned expert or a masochist. The easiest way is to start your shower as you normally would with warm water, then finish on as cold as you can tolerate, even if it’s only for 5-10 seconds. Work your way up to longer times and colder temperatures, it will get significantly easier the more you practice and you will learn to love it.
Once you’re ready, graduate to the full on cold plunge!
This is by far the best way to reap the benefits of cold exposure but also the most challenging. It will take both physical and mental resilience so it’s definitely advised to work your way up to this, ideally under the supervision of someone who is experienced in cold therapy.
Eat Like it’s Winter
Seasonal eating is one of the gaps in nutritional science as it is almost never discussed! Imagine you were one of our native ancestors living in the northern US or Canada during the winter. What would you eat? You would definitely not be eating bananas and avocados or big green salads. The only thing that is consistent across every traditional culture is that they ate whole, minimally processed foods that were seasonally available. Even though we like to think of foods as being healthy or unhealthy, this is entirely dependent on the context in which they are consumed. Focus on eating mainly foods that are local and seasonally available and enjoy small quantities of out of season/exported foods (don’t worry I wouldn’t totally deprive you of coffee and chocolate).
Eat high fat animal products
This is primarily what is seasonally available during the winter months in cold climates. Hunted animals would be the primary food source as there are no vegetables, fruits or grains growing at this time. The winter is a great time to eat a more ketogenic type of diet.
Avoid out of season fruits and vegetables
Fruits and starchy vegetables are seasonally available during the summer and fall as a source of carbohydrates and sugars to be converted into fat giving us increased energy stores during the winter. The combination of increased darkness (more melatonin), cold temperature, and a high-fat low-carb diet during the winter allows for us to burn fat as our primary fuel. Eating out of season fruits and vegetables (as well as artificial light and absence of cold exposure) disrupts this seasonal process and leads to metabolic issues such as weight gain and diabetes.
Eat warm, well-cooked foods
This is a staple in Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as many other cultures to support digestive function. It takes a lot of extra energy to digest cold and raw foods, especially in the winter. Eat plenty of bone broth, soups, stews and other warm, cooked meals.
Eat plenty of seafood
Fatty fish are a good source of dietary Vitamin D as well as DHA which helps us to better assimilate sunlight into usable energy (yes humans can use the sun as a source of energy similar to plant photosynthesis)
Don’t eat after dark
When you eat is just as important as what you eat. As a general rule, eat only when the sun is up. Food is a major input that impacts our circadian rhythm and should be coupled with natural light exposure.
Go On a Vacation
Go somewhere warm, doctor’s orders. Seriously, I look at winter vacations as an important health investment. There is no better way to boost your mood, vitamin D and energy levels than to spend a week on the beach.
Avoid the use of sunscreen and sunglasses as much as you can. You can use a natural sunscreen on the first few days to avoid a burn but once you have a tan reduce the amount used. Sunscreen blocks the production of vitamin D as well as some of the other benefits of sunlight.
Get outside during the sunrise and sunset. Red and infrared light during these times helps to prime your skin cells for midday UV exposure and repair damaged skin cells =less sunburn! Seek shade during peak UV hours (midday) if you burn easily. The goal is to get as much sun as possible without getting burnt!
Don’t Isolate Yourself
The winter is inherently more of an introspective season but this doesn’t mean you should totally hibernate! Get out and do fun things with friends and family, don’t isolate yourself. Find a balance between chilling/ spending time alone but also nourishing your heart qi (energy) with meaningful social connection.
Winter blues= nature deficiency. Reconnect to nature and take advantage of the many gifts that winter has to offer.
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